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Les Leyne: Museum's Old Town lives on, as a ghost town

Future of Royal B.C. Museum has been sidelined by David Eby’s government
Guests at the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce's 160th anniversary reception visit the Royal B.C. Museum's Old Town exhibit this week. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

Premier David Eby has launched several new drives to tackle festering problems in his first three months in office, but there’s one big problem not on his agenda.

It’s the Royal B.C. Museum, which has been sidelined because nobody has a clue what to do next.

Guests at the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce’s 160th anniversary reception got a reminder of that on Thursday. The museum was the venue, and those interested got a sneak peek at one of the many dilemmas the RBCM is facing.

The boarded-up Old Town exhibit was unlocked and those who wanted to were given a brief glimpse of what it looks like now. It confirmed what RBCM director Alicia Dubois told the Times Colonist in January — the place is pretty much untouched.

That was startling news, given that officials said earlier that the third-floor exhibit was going to be dismantled in short order after it was abruptly closed at the end of 2021. It’s just one of several confounding developments arising from the huge dilemma facing the government after the collapse of the first solution that was offered last spring.

That was the idea of shutting down the museum for eight years, razing the site and building a new one for $789 million.

That concept lasted barely two weeks before then-premier John Horgan was forced to kill it in the face of incredulous objections about the cost.

Giving up on the project turned down the political heat. But the problem has by no means gone away.

A new round of consultations is underway that could run for years. Phase one is underway, with various listening sessions around B.C.

A second phase of deeper engagement next year will eventually produce a public report.

The museum will then either prepare an action plan that “advances a revised, public-informed concept of a modern museum,” or go back for still more consultation.

To sum up, if the route to renewal doesn’t become clear, they’ll keep talking about it for years to come. Either way, nothing will happen during next year’s election campaign, which suits the NDP fine.

The snap decision to close Old Town on the third floor with just two months notice — after zero public consultation — was made in late 2021.

Then-minister responsible Melanie Mark said the commitment to Indigenous reconciliation demanded that government “decolonize the way we share history.”

Over the course of last year, the reason for closing off the popular attraction changed, and asbestos contamination and seismic worries were emphasized.

After the decision to cancel the rebuild, the determination to turn Old Town “inside out” subsided.

A handful of staff are going item-by-item through the thousands that are on display, but there has been no wholesale change while the RBCM’s future hangs on so many questions.

If seismic worries are so urgent, should it even stay there?

If the threat is that serious, what about the legislature next door?

If Old Town is “full of asbestos,” why was it left open for decades?

After the short-lived announcement of a new museum, the government released a business plan trying to justify the decision. It showed virtually every conceivable option was considered before they settled on the eight-year closure, razing and building.

That was shot down because of the price tag, which will go nowhere but up as consultations continue.

Meanwhile, attendance was slumping even with the price cut that lasted much of last year. (The admission fee went back up to the previous $18 per adult at the start of this year, even though the third floor is still closed.)

The ultimate solution is very much up in the air. But the fact Old Town is still more or less intact, and the fact the RBCM gave a few people a peek, makes you wonder if there isn’t a stopgap measure worth considering.

If they retooled it and the other settler displays with more up-to-date reconciliation and cultural sensitivities, they could rebuild at least some of the museum’s attendance and revenue during the long public engagement process.

It’s very much a hot topic in the consultations to date. The government said it was going to back up and start over. It should back up completely, refresh Old Town and carry on while Plan B takes shape.